More than 70 former and current gymnasts in Canada have called for an investigation into “ongoing toxic and abusive practices” gymnasts are allegedly subject to in the country.
In an open letter addressed to Sport Canada, the athletes have called for the governing body to conduct an “independent, third-party investigation.”
This is after they claimed Gymnastics Canada (GymCan) failed to address these issues and failed to earn the trust and confidence of athletes.
“Their [GymCan’s] inability to adequately respond to ongoing systemic abuse, mistreatment and discrimination is troubling,” said the letter, which was shared by start-up group Global Athlete.
It added: “For almost a decade, the fear of retribution has prevented us and scores of other athletes from speaking out.
“However, we can no longer sit in silence. We are coming forward with our experiences of abuse, neglect, and discrimination in hopes of forcing change.
“We ask Sport Canada to take action to ensure the next generation of Canadian gymnasts is not subject to the physical and psychological trauma that we have had to endure.”
In a statement on its website on Tuesday, GymCan said it was aware of the letter being circulated and agreed that an external and independent organization must be established to oversee complaints.
“While we are saddened to learn that dozens of athletes feel that we failed to address these issues, we are committed to continuing to educate and advocate for system-wide reforms that will help ensure all participants feel respected, included and safe when training and competing in sport,” said the statement.
“We agree that many more supports must be in place to address unsafe practices in sport […] We also agree that more work is needed to create more humanistic approaches where participants can thrive.”
It added: “Gymnastics Canada, as the governing body for the sport in Canada, has addressed every complaint or concern that has come forward to the national body.”
According to the letter, complaints have been made about Canadian coaches over the past five years, many of whom were instructing minors at training camps, competitions and national team assignments.
But the athletes allege that GymCan has only paid “lip service” to problems raised. The athletes say they have “gotten nowhere” with requests for an internal investigation within the organization.
The signatories – who are unnamed and say they include Olympians and national team members – have called for an independent, third-party investigation from Sport Canada to “ensure athlete safety” in the future.
“Many athletes who have experienced abuse suffer significant ongoing psychological and physical consequences, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and chronic pain,” the letter said.
“We continue to suffer harm while participating in programs run by GymCan, the very organization entrusted with developing and protecting us.”
In a statement sent to CNN, Canadian sports minister Pascale St-Onge said there is “no place for harassment, abuse, discrimination, or maltreatment in sports,” and added that the government is working to create an independent mechanism to report maltreatment in sports.
“We have raised the standards and expectations of organizations that receive federal funding,” the statement said. “We are looking to strengthen how we monitor the responsibilities of organizations to keep their athletes safe, and we will hold organizations accountable if they fall short of expectations.
“Today’s open letter is a reminder that we must take action to create a cultural shift in sport at all levels. All athletes have the right to practice their sport in a healthy, safe, ethical, and respectful environment.”
The letter comes four years after disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in Michigan state prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct.
At the sentencing, 156 victims, including Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney, recounted stories of how they went to Nassar to receive treatment for sports injuries, only to be sexually assaulted and told it was a form of treatment.
Two months before, Nasser was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges.
Canadian gymnasts are also not the only athletes in the country to make abuse allegations. Three years ago, bobsledder Kallie Humphries switched allegiances to the United States saying she was “targeted, harassed and bullied” by coach Todd Hays – allegations Hays denies.
More than 60 other bobsled and skeleton athletes signed an open letter on March 7 calling for the resignation of senior figures in Canada’s bobsled and skeleton governing body (BCS) to resign, citing a “toxic” environment.
In response to the open letter, BCS issued a statement saying it would address any issues.
“We take the concerns of our athletes seriously,” read the statement.
“As we do at the completion of every Olympic quadrennial, we plan to meet with our athlete community directly as soon as possible to review and address their concerns.”